Religious conservatives imposing their views? A reflection on the SSM debate

Editors’ note: 

One of the objections to voting no in the same-sex marriage survey goes like this: religious conservatives shouldn’t impose their beliefs on others.

One of the objections to voting no in the same-sex marriage survey goes like this: religious conservatives shouldn’t impose their beliefs on others. 

It’s a rule of good debate that one should represent the opposing view in its strongest form. And, at its strongest, this one is very strong indeed. There is a compelling gospel logic to it. Inherent to the proclamation of the gospel is persuasion rather than coercion. By its very nature, the gospel cannot be imposed on others. And, because the transformed moral life flows from faith, imposing Christian morality on people who do not have this faith is no part of evangelical mission.  

Moreover, there are many areas in which Christians happily hold the dual belief that (a) something is morally wrong and that (b) it should not be illegal. Lying, blasphemy and even adultery are all matters that, for most Christians, fit in both categories. 

In New Testament thought, the State is at best, a force of modest moral restraint (Romans 13) and at worst an institution susceptible to demonic evil (Revelation 13). It is never given the role of saviour, nor is it a force for positive moral progress or sanctification. Should we really be looking to the State to impose Christian sexual morality on people who don’t believe the gospel? Really? That guy?

These are vital points that ought to give us pause. The Great Commission is not “impose Christian sexual morality on unbelievers”. The progress of the gospel is never by coercion, but by preaching, attended with persuasion, suffering, and lives of compelling goodness and beauty. Any thought that the force of the State could advance the gospel in any way that really matters to us should be banished immediately to the Really. Bad. Ideas. Folder.   

And yet, I do not believe this amounts to a case against voting no. I have four reasons.

1. The nature of Jesus’ lordship 

First, we are happy to impose our views on government in all sorts of other areas. For example, our government’s shameful treatment of asylum seekers has been a flash-point of near-universal condemnation by Christian leaders, and literally every single major Christian denomination in Australia. Christian views that our government should not treat asylum seekers as it has have commanded a much higher consensus that Christian views on SSM. 

But why?

It is precisely because we believe Jesus would never treat refugees like that. We want the government to do the same. We cheerfully imposed our views in this area, because Jesus is Lord. Like the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, protest against our government’s treatment of asylum seekers was conspicuously and overtly religious—prayer vigils, Scripture readings and songs. Senior Australian Journalist Greg Sheridan, himself supportive of the bi-partisan tough approach to asylum seekers is nevertheless “happy that the churches haven’t quite reached this position, because their overwhelming first instinct is simply to care for refugees.”

Quite right. Christians have tried to change their government’s actions on specifically religious grounds.

Now, one could perhaps run a consistent quietist line on these matters and simply accept that whatever the government proposes to do is none of our business. That would be consistent. But also appalling. The twentieth century alone has supplied ample examples of times when Christians should have said to the State “You may not do this.” And a perfectly valid reason the State may not do this is because Jesus is Lord.

Now it happens to be the case that we live in a democracy. Part of the deal is that, in our system, the government has actually asked for our comment. It would seem churlish to not to answer when asked. But there is enough in the lordship of Jesus to say that we should speak prophetically to government, even when no such invitation is issued.

2. “Christian” marriage?

Secondly, there is no such thing as Christian marriage.

Marriage may be conditioned by the gospel (Ephesians 5:21-33), but marriage is emphatically not God’s gift to the church. It is his gift to humanity. The church in Corinth was apparently in danger of misunderstanding this. When they started to question the status of their marriages to unbelievers, Paul is clear: the status of the marriage is not lessened when only one spouse is a believer (1 Corinthians 7:12-16). It’s still a marriage. Because marriage is grounded in creation, Christians are obligated to accept all legitimate marriages—whether Muslim, Atheist, Hindu or Christian as marriages, and therefore worthy of all the honour and dignity scripture affords them. To acquiesce to the idea of there being such a thing as a “Christian marriage” is, ironically, not a Christian view of marriage.

3. The origins of marriage

Thirdly, marriage is not imposed but discovered. As an institution it is older than the State chronologically, and superior to the State in dignity. Marriage’s antiquity vis-à-vis the State is true both in the Bible’s account and in any secular history of our species you care to consult. Marriage is a discovered institution, and the State is frankly incompetent to set about re-defining institutions it had no part in inventing. When the State starts chiming in on realities bigger and deeper than itself, it’s Orwell’s corpse you can hear turning in the background. If the statement is “religious conservatives can’t impose their beliefs on government” it is also true that “States can’t impose their beliefs on reality.” (For this reason, I think the State getting out of the marriage game altogether is a worthy proposal).

4. The secular space

Fourthly and finally, the statement that religious people can’t impose their beliefs on government plays into a wider myth that there is a such a thing as a secular space in which there are no beliefs, only facts. This is not true. The moment we find ourselves talking about matters of human personhood, meaning, value, morality and rights, we are no longer in a “secular” realm in which all players have left their belief-weapons at the door and agreed to only argue in “secular” terms. Beliefs such as equality and human rights are apparently welcome in this space. But in which laboratory was equality first discovered? Under which experimental conditions did we discover human rights? Which researcher was it who first captured liberty, equality and fraternity on camera in the wild?

All these matters are inescapably metaphysical and theological. They are faith-commitments. Beliefs. Religious convictions. (It is no accident that those countries which have accepted SSM are almost all historically Christian countries. The concepts of equality and human rights did not fall unbidden from the clear blue sky of reason. They have a Christian genealogy.) 

Conclusion

Are you enjoying the debate around the plebiscite? Me neither. I feel vaguely ill every time I think about it. 

I worry about LBGT people whose lives are being debated so publically and, in not a few instances, with gross insensitivity. I despair at how hard it is to simultaneously communicate my commitment to classical marriage with an honest, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die love for the several LBGT people who make my life immeasurably richer for their friendship.

Conversely, I am aware several people who have been treated with hostility, contempt and cruelty for holding a view of marriage that was, until about 6 years ago, was shared by people including Barack Obama, Julia Gillard and Penny Wong. The people I’m talking about are wonderful Christian people, whose lives shine goodness, but who are treated like pariahs at their places of work for holding to classical marriage. 

One final thought experiment: Let’s accept the gospel can only ever go out legitimately by proclamation. Let’s accept that it is through prayer and worship and suffering and good lives lived that the mission advances. Here’s the thought experiment:What if, in our work of speaking truth to power, of declaring the victory of Jesus Christ over every power and principality—what if someone in government listened?[1]

What if as we declared the Lord Jesus’ love for the stranger and alien, for the least and the last, for the refugee and asylum seeker—what if a member of parliament, or a party, or even a government heard that call to repentance and faith and said: “We have sinned against heaven.”

Surely we would not then say: “Sorry, that backfired. We only meant to speak prophetically. We didn’t expect you to actually listen.” We would be delighted, and we’d be cheering them on as they humbly sought to see the implications of Jesus’ lordship have its impact on government.

If we do not expect governments to listen and repent at the lordship of Jesus, then we should admit that we are really virtue-signalling and cease. If we are quietist then, well, let’s be quiet. But, if we do pray that members of government will will respond in repentance and faith, then we are not quietists in our view of the State. We think it is susceptible to the impact of the reign of King Jesus.   

This is not a protest, it’s a plebiscite. The sky will not fall in after a yes vote. Let’s keep loving Jesus and loving our neighbour with all our might. My point in the thought experiment is that that we do view governments as open to persuasion. We do think that what Jesus says is relevant to the State.


[1] This thought experiment was first suggested to me in Douglas Wilson’s Empires of Dirt (Canon Press: 2016).

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